The black nightshade is a common annual or short-lived perennial plant found in disturbed habitats such as shaded road and way sides, footpaths and under trees. It is easily recognised by its small white flowers and black berries.These plants can grow to over one metre in height but most plants found in the Maltese countryside are only about half a metre tall.
Another related species, the hairy nightshade, is very similar but its berries are red. The black nightshade is known in Maltese as għeneb id-dib while the hairy nightshade is known as tuffieħ is-serp.
Parts of the black nightshade plant, especially unripe berries, are poisonous and, if ingested in sufficient quantities, can be fatal.
However, some varieties have been widely used as food. In some countries, such as parts of North America and Africa, it is cultivated and the leaves and berries are eaten either raw or boiled. This is certainly not recommended in areas where the indigenous variety might be more toxic.
The black nightshade is native to Europe and Asia, but it is now also found in North Africa, the Americas, Australasia and South Africa.
Leaves and fruits of the plant are used for medicinal purposes in some countries.
The species was mentioned by herbalists as far back as the First Century AD. In ancient Greece the plant was used as a cure for dropsy but its use declined as it was considered too unpredictable and dangerous. The plant is, however, still used in traditional oriental medicine, especially as a cure for dysentery, stomach complains and fevers.
The nightshades belong to a large group of plants many of which are poisonous although some of the species in this group are grown commercially. These include the tomato, potato and eggplant.
This article was published in The Times on 21.11.12